William Barbour Wilson was quite a presence, 6 foot and weighing in at 18 stone. He was a man of immense energy, always walked at a fast pace – keeping one hand on his hat and the other motioning to others to make room for him. He had a ready smile for his friends but if he didn’t like you, his expression would confirm your suspicions. He proved to be a passionate man, who had no problem using additional emphasis when he was taking about his two loves – trees and politics.
Wilson arrived in Port Chalmers, Otago in 1850. He toured the country, taking in the sights of Auckland, Wellington and Nelson. He finally settled, choosing Christchurch in 1851. He opened a tree nursery on Oxford Terrace, opposite ‘The Bricks’ (north west cnr of Barbadoes Street and Oxford Terrace) – an area where settlers left their bricks beside the Avon, returning for them later by dray as they were too heavy to continue by canoe into Christchurch. He ran that nursery until 1856.
As there were two other prominent businessmen by the same name, William earned the nickname of ‘Cabbage’ Wilson. This came about because his well recognised working hat – made of Cabbage Tree leaves – a gift to him by the local Iwi.
In 1857, William opened his second nursery, 18 acres between Manchester and Madras Streets. Bedford Row would go straight down the middle of this nursery if it were here today. Although competition was strong by this stage, he remained the best in the business.
Over the next few years, Wilson was elected to the Canterbury Provincial Council. He was also the Chairman of the Municipal Committee that was responsible for the landscaping of the Avon River and the tree planting in Fitzgerald and Bealey Avenues. In 1868, he was elected as the Christchurch’s first Mayor and served Christchurch in that role for six months.
After a very public scandal in 1876, Wilson withdrew from public life. A complete recluse, he died in 1897 a sad shadow of the man he once was. He is remembered today in the naming of Wilsons Road. A block east down from Wilsons Road, as you travel down Ferry Road towards Woolston, the next road on your right is Barbour Street which is William’s middle name.